wrestling / Columns

Ask 411 Wrestling: How Does Shawn Michaels’ 1996 WWE Title Run Stack Up?

October 6, 2023 | Posted by Ryan Byers
Shawn Michaels Image Credit: WWE/Peacock

Welcome guys, gals, and gender non-binary pals, to Ask 411 Wrestling. I am your party host, Ryan Byers, and I am here to answer some of your burning inquiries about professional wrestling.
If you have one of those queries searing a hole in your brain, feel free to send it along to me at [email protected]. Don’t be shy about shooting those over – the more, the merrier.

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Robert wants to 86 ’96:

This is more of an opinion question, but what did you think of the Shawn Michaels run as champ in 1996? I was rewatching some of those old Raws (and old PPV) and I was kind of stunned at how bad he was. He was fine in the ring, but he was just not THE guy if that makes sense. Especially by the end of the year- I watched Survivor Series ’96 and even tho Shawn was the babyface, the crowd ERUPTED when Sid (who’s almost ALWAYS heel) won the belt! And the next day on Raw, Vince basically had a sobbing promo about how the fans were wrong. It was so bizarre. Watching the shows back it sure seemed like the thing that saved the entire company was the Bret/Hart Foundation vs. Austin feud. I know WWE as an entity is a poor historian, but it’s really weird watching the Metwork specials that make it sound like it was all Shawn and HHH and DX (even though it’s clear WHY that narrative is pushed). But maybe I’m judging it poorly- what do you think? Was Shawn Michaels’ title run actually keeping the company afloat? And did you personally like it?

As far as my personal opinion is concerned, the Michaels title run in 1996 was . . . fine.

In terms of his personality, babyface HBK never really lit my world on fire. It’s not as though he had channel-changing, “go away” heat with me, but arrogant heel Michaels was so natural that it felt like he regressed as a character when he turned. (Fortunately, he would get better at this in the future – from 2002 onward I would call him one of the greatest faces in wrestling history.)

In-ring, I would tend to agree with Robert that he was very good but not the guy who churned out classic after classic as we would come to know him in the 2000s. However, I think that had far more to do with his lineup of opponents than his actual ability. He had high-profile matches with Diesel and Sid, who are obviously not known for a lot of effort between the ropes. There was his Summerslam match against Vader, which on paper looked like it should have been stellar, but obviously, the two had issues working with each other. His bouts with the British Bulldog were solid but were a bit overshadowed by a tawdry storyline.

When he was put into the ring with opponents on his level, there were still great bouts. His Mind Games encounter with Mankind is one example, and Michaels against a heel Marty Jannetty on a ’96 Raw is underrated and forgotten about, even if it’s not the best match the two ever had against one another. HBK’s match listing during this title reign isn’t his greatest work, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either.

Personal opinions aside, it’s unquestionable that, from a business perspective, Michaels as champion did nothing to reverse the ill fortunes that the WWF was already facing. They continued to see declining houses and continued to lose money, which is something that would continue throughout late 1997 until Steve Austin and Vincent Kennedy McMahon kicked things into high gear following the Montreal Screwjob. They’re really the ones who reversed the company’s fortunes, as opposed to the narrative that D-Generation X somehow did it.

JFW2 remains unstable:

WWE’s long-time policy is to bury or hide guys who they know are leaving. And then once they have, never mention them again like they never existed.

But then . . . Dean Ambrose. He was featured prominently before leaving and then they even acknowledged it on TV.

Even stranger, this was the first time in decades they had legitimate competition. And everyone in management had to assume there was a good chance that’s where he was headed.

So why this 180 in how they dealt with Ambrose leaving? And have they ever done anything like that (obviously not including actual retirements) with another performer?

This was touched on in the May 6, 2019, Wrestling Observer Newsletter, in which the comment was made that the only logical explanation for Ambrose’s sendoff was that WWE was hopefully that he would return to the company sooner rather than later. By that point, TNA had imploded and AEW was not truly a threat yet, which makes that line of thinking plausible.

journbon is on the DL:

Who would you consider to be the most injury-prone wrestler? I’ve been watching a lot of the network and it seems either Shane Douglas or Rey Mysterio were always taking time off for injuries. Thoughts?

The name that immediately comes to mind is Ahmed Johnson. Granted, he didn’t have as long a career as some, so there are guys who no doubt had more injuries by sheer volume, but there were at least two occasions in just a couple of years during which he was lined up for a significant run only for it to be cut short by a legit health issue.

Pd comes from a land down under:

I’ve been absent for a long time. I want to know your opinion about Tony Garea since I guess he is underrated. Garea has been involved in WWWF/WWF/WWE, and he’s barely mentioned. Most of us recognize him as an eternal tag team wrestler with some tag titles as well. What’s your opinion/analysis on Tony Garea?

I hate to just perpetuate the issue that Pd is attempting to remedy, but . . . I just don’t have any strong feelings about Tony Garea. He deserves credit for longevity in pro wrestling, and he deserves credit for being loyal to his employer. Yet, as a performer, he was one of those guys who was just there. He was far from bad, but he wasn’t stellar, either. He was just a solid, reliable midcard wrestler who didn’t do anything to stick out.

I don’t have any snappy comments to make here. Let’s just go to Tyler from Winnipeg:

I have a soft spot for Nick “Eugene” Dinsmore, I thought HHH had some great encounters with him, what do you think happened where he went from the Main Event slot to his fast fall?

Eugene was a comedy character. I’m not one of these people who believe that comedic gimmicks have absolutely no place in professional wrestling, but I cannot think of a single time in the history of the spot where an act of that nature has been able to headline cards for an extended period of time without the audience losing interest. They’re best served as midcard acts that occasionally get a brush with the main event when it’s sensible from a storyline perspective, like what we saw with Santino Marella over his years in WWE.

Think of the funniest joke you’ve ever heard. It’s amazing the first time you hear it. If you hear it again, you’ll still laugh. And maybe that’s true the third time. Possibly fourth. However, if you have to listen to the same joke being told every week for several months, you’re going to lose interest and eventually stop listening to it.

That’s what happened to Eugene.

Michael threatened to set himself on fire if I didn’t answer this question:

Do you agree with the decision to have Kane beat Austin for the world title, only to hold it for one day? I mean, I get the point that it was McMahon screwing Austin by having a first blood match with a guy in a mask and a full-body suit, but why just have him hold it one day?

It depends.

If you’re asking me from a longer-term booking perspective, I do not agree with the notion of booking a match where you’re effectively forced to do a title change that you feel you have to immediately reverse the following evening. As a result, if I were writing WWF television at the time, you wouldn’t ever have seen a first blood match between Kane and Steve Austin being booked. It would’ve been a straight one-on-one match between the two guys with Stone Cold going over in the end. You could argue that the first blood stip created intrigue about how Austin could possibly win, but there are a hundred other gimmicks for the match that could have generated the same question as to how the babyface would prevail.

That being said, if you put me in a position where the Austin/Kane first blood match was already booked and asked me what to do next, I would have absolutely said that Kane should have dropped the strap back to Austin ASAP.

He was a great supporting character, but nobody was buying pay-per-views or tuning into Monday Night Raw to see Kane. Meanwhile, Steve Austin was the single hottest act in the history of professional wrestling up to that point in time. He should have been your champion, and the company was right to switch the belt back to him.

Jon is climbing to the precipice:

What is your Mt. Rushmore of non-American wrestling cities?

Tokyo and Mexico City are your no-brainers if we assume that by “American” you mean the U.S. as opposed to the American continents more generally.

Beyond that, things are more open to debate, but I would go with Toronto due to its territorial history with the Tunneys and its remaining a hot city for modern wrestling as well as London going back to the World of Sport days.

The smartass in me really wanted to say Rio de Janeiro.

He’s a man called Steve:

When Sid Justice debuted in the WWF in 1991, it looked like he was being positioned as the next huge babyface, potentially the latest successor to Hulk Hogan. But within about six months, he’d become a monster heel after turning on Hogan. What was the reason for such a quick turn? Was it always the plan — he’d be more hateable if fans were initially conditioned to love him? Or did the WWF feel he just wasn’t delivering in a top babyface spot?

I touched on this back in December, though it was more in response to a question about the potential of a Hogan/Flair Wrestlemania main event than it was in response to a question about Sid’s heel turn.

However, the information is the same. Sid wrestling Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VIII (and thus turning heel after his babyface introduction) is something that was planned out quite a bit before it happened, per Dave Meltzer’s reporting.


Question about the women’s division in AEW. First, as a disclaimer, I don’t watch the WWE product. I only read the 411 reports. However in AEW, there are quality wrestlers in the women’s division, but something is missing. I look at Impact and see more in their effort and execution. Do you think Gail Kim is the difference? The hiring of Madison Rayne has not done it, at least for me. Do you think Gail could improve the AEW product in terms of talent acquisition and execution?

I’m not backstage and no journalists that I’m aware of are really reporting on this issue, so I don’t think that I can speak with authority about how one particular agent out of several does or does not impact (pun intended) how a division is presented on television.

Regardless of personnel, my impression is that the AEW women’s division comes off as less than stellar because the AEW women’s division is booked like it’s not a priority for the company. Yes, they get their one or two matches per major show, but the presentation makes the division feel as though it’s an afterthought that exists solely because having a women’s division in your wrestling promotion in 2023 is the “politically correct” or “woke” thing to do. You may as well call it the virtue-signaling division. A problem like that doesn’t get solved by a change in one agent. A problem with priority setting like that has to be addressed from the top of the company.

And to be 100% clear – I’m not saying any of the above because I have anything against women’s wrestling. This is the guy who used to regularly cover SHIMMER for this website. I do have something against poorly executed wrestling, which is what the AEW women’s division has been for the most part, aside from Jade Cargill’s run that made her a big enough star that the competition wanted to gobble her up.

Bret is straightening his little bowler hat:

I remember watching the double turn the Powers of Pain and Demolition did back at the Survivor Series in 1988. I saw the Powers of Pain and Mr. Fuji actually being cheered in which is what the WWF didn’t want. At the time the Powers of Pain was hot but after they turned heel they lost their push? Have you heard any reason for this?

I don’t think that they lost their push after they turned heel. If anything, it reinvigorated their push because, immediately before the Survivor Series, the Powers of Pain were feuding with the Bolsheviks, and, after the double turn, they once again became Demolition’s regular opponents for the WWF Tag Team Championship, which continued through Wrestlemania V.

If becoming a championship contender for the better part of six months and getting into your division’s biggest match at Wrestlemania is losing your push, I can think of a ton of wrestlers who would love to lose their push.

It is true that, after the Mania match, the POP were not quite what they once were, but at that point, the program with Demolition had run its course. The full story had been told, and there was nothing worth going back to.

Given that both guys remained with the company through 1992 and Barbarian got a comeback in 1994, it’s hard to believe that there were any sort of ill feelings between the wrestlers and the WWF.

Big Al is knocking on the door:

When DX tried to invade WCW Nitro in 1998 in Norfolk, VA why didn’t WCW just let them in? Then Eric Bischoff could have said, “Look who has come to WCW!!” Imagine what could have happened had they done that. At any point was the WWF thinking that was a possibility and they have a plan in case they were actually let in?

DX didn’t get into the building because the right people didn’t know that DX was trying to get into the building. Eric Bischoff has addressed this in his 83 Weeks podcast and in other media appearances, essentially saying that, when DX was filming the segments, he didn’t know that they were on the property and allegedly trying to get into the building. He’s also said that, if he had known that, he would have welcomed them in with open arms because it would have made for compelling television.

On the flip side of things, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody answer the question of what the WWF’s plan was had DX been let into the building. In fact, Bruce Prichard, who was working in production on the segments on the WWF side, has said that he did not think that he and the crew would have been legally allowed inside the building, which leads one to believe that they hadn’t thought through a plan as they didn’t believe it was a possibility.

We’ll return in seven-ish days, and, as always, you can contribute your questions by emailing [email protected]. You can also leave questions in the comments below, but please note that I do not monitor the comments as closely as I do the email account, so emailing is the better way to get things answered.